President Obama is approaching his Churchillian moment in Egypt, doing the right thing after exhausting every other alternative. It is time to end the Hamlet-like debate, decide to decide and call it a coup. The credibility of the United States is on the line.
The Obama administration made a fair wager last month, leaving $1.3 billion in military aid in place after the Egyptian military, backed by popular demand, forced from power the duly elected but ineffective government of Mohammed Morsi. By not calling the action a coup, it skirted a legal requirement to suspend aid in the aftermath of a military coup.
We’re not taking sides, spokesmen for the White House and State Department have stressed repeatedly.
There was a clear pragmatic and realist logic to this stance. Morsi was not governing inclusively or making the necessary reforms to turn around Egypt’s moribund economy, a key element in democracy’s advance. Far more people in Egypt were demanding change than had voted Morsi into office.
It was reasonable to view the Egyptian military, the strongest and most respected institution in Egyptian society, as the best available vehicle to move the democratic transition forward. It defended the revolution in 2011. This time, it quickly formed an interim civilian government to oversee a rewriting of the constitution, a popular referendum and parliamentary and presidential elections, all within a year.
This course sought to balance the many American interests that intersect in Egypt. America’s partnership with Egypt is vital to regional security, including counterterrorism cooperation, respect for the peace treaty with Israel, and constructive support of the Middle East peace process.
But the approach has not paid off—because the Egyptian military, backed by regional powers like Saudi Arabia, is following a different script.
It has effectively rewound the revolution back to 2011. Emergency law has been reintroduced. The Muslim Brotherhood has in six weeks gone from being a governing party to a terrorist organization. Even the latest news, the release of former president Hosni Mubarak from pre-trial confinement, reinforces the notion that the old guard is back.
Egypt is going back to the future and dragging the United States along for the ride. It is clear that Egypt’s military intervention will yield a new government that is different and perhaps more efficient, but no more representative, than the one that it overthrew. While wrapped in a democratic veneer, it will fall far short of what the United States advocated for two years ago and even six weeks ago.
As a result, a new and more decisive approach is needed.
The United States should call the Egyptian military intervention a coup. Military aid should be suspended. Saudi Arabia can replace the money, but not the actual assistance. The Saudi War College is no match for its American counterparts.
The existing debate in Washington assumes we needs to send a strong message to the generals. In reality, the United States has already told the Egyptian military all it needs to know. Despite the coup, its campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, the deaths of more than 1,000 civilians and containment not enhancement of democracy, none of this has altered the U.S. relationship with Egypt’s military and interim government. It’s time to make clear to Egypt there is a real cost to ignoring American advice.
The larger problem is not the wrong message sent to the generals, but the compelling message heard by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters: That the United States is not prepared to defend democracy in Egypt, and that election results don’t matter.
President Obama reversed America’s long-standing tacit acceptance of autocracy in the Middle East when he demanded Mubarak’s departure in 2011. If he passively accepts Egypt’s retrenchment now, he will discount one of the signature moments of his presidency. Democracy will return to its place as an abstract long-term priority, but never a priority when and where it counts.
Instead, the president should make clear that, unless the existing vilification and siege of the Muslim Brotherhood ceases and its Freedom and Justice Party is allowed to compete in the upcoming elections, the United States will not recognize the results as legitimate. If the Muslim Brotherhood is as small, unpopular and ineffective as its critics allege, there is nothing to fear from a free and fair election. That’s the essence of democracy.
Why should the United States defend the Muslim Brotherhood? Because our counterterrorism strategy encourages Islamists to work within a representative political process rather than trying to violently overthrow it.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s leader and an Egyptian, must be smiling at his good fortune. He has already issued a public rebuke to the Muslim Brotherhood that loosely translated says, “I told you so.” Al Qaeda has been largely irrelevant to the Arab Awakening as it has unfolded over the past two years. An open-ended crisis in Egypt provides a dangerous opportunity for another extremist toe-hold in the heart of the Middle East. The last time Egypt experienced such a cycle of violence and repression, it produced a generation of radical leaders, Zawahiri among them.
The Obama administration needs a change of posture. Washington’s influence is actually handicapped, not enhanced by its current indecision over the Egyptian coup. In Egypt, the presumption of limited American influence has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The American narrative about democracy and the Arab Awakening has been hijacked.
If the stated policy goal of the United States is a more inclusive government than the last one, then it should be defended, both privately and publicly. The Obama administration should shift from its current crisis management approach back to the “new beginning” President Obama spoke about in 2009 and the boldness he displayed when he called for an Egyptian transition that begins “now.”
The United States is only a supporting character in the story being written in Egypt, but the neutral ground is gone. Washington cannot dictate an outcome in Egypt, but does control on which side of history it chooses to stand.